Catholics across the nation are participating in a 14-day vigil called “Fortnight of Freedom”, which includes prayer, lectures, discussions, and direct action.
The event, which began June 21, is a response on the part of U.S. Catholic Bishops to recent actions taken by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and statements made by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
I participated in one of those programs earlier this week, a panel discussion at St. Peter Church entitled, “HHS Mandate and Religious Freedom.” It’s a complicated issue, but many Catholics believe it’s vital.
Last August, HHS announced new mandates for the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), which takes effect in 2014. Initially, the mandates would have required all religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations to pay for a more robust and comprehensive array of health services, which would have included coverage for artificial birth control and sterilization.
At the same time, the HHS also issued a four-pronged religious exemption to the mandate.
These actions by the HHS prompted an immediate and vocal response from Catholic bishops, as well as from lay Catholics across the political spectrum.
The rationale for the protest is multi-leveled.
First, Catholic doctrine and teaching clearly forbids the use of artificial means of birth control, referring to any attempt to eliminate the possibility of conception from the sexual act as “intrinsically evil.” Many Catholics take these teachings quite seriously and so objected to the HHS mandate on these grounds.
Second, because there is still public debate about how some mechanisms of artificial birth control operate, many Catholics also objected to the mandate for fear it might implicate employers in providing abortifacients, a device or drug used in inducing abortions. Their fear is that many mechanisms advertised to prevent pregnancy actually operate by terminating an early, but established, conception.
Third, many Catholics objected to the wording of the religious exemptions provided along with the HHS mandate. The exemptions divide eligibility starkly between churches and “faith-based service organizations.” The staffs of the former are exempt under the mandate, but the latter may or may not be exempt.
This has caused particular concern with regard to Catholic hospitals, charities, and colleges. Because these organizations are often staffed by, and serve, many non-Catholics, it is not at all clear that they would, or could, qualify for the exemption.
Despite clear divisions among American lay Catholics regarding the use of birth control, as well as the Affordable Care Act itself, the initial response to the HHS mandate from across the Catholic political spectrum was quite unified. Whether at the level of opposition to “intrinsic evil” or too-narrow exemptions, many American Catholics found reason to be suspicious and critical of the HHS proposal.
The Obama administration has been slow to address such concerns, and the White House’s proposed responses to those concerns have been met by the bishops with suspicion.
In mid-April, the bishops issued a position statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” It ends with the call for Catholics across America to participate in the “Fortnight of Freedom.”
In the statement, the bishops assert that religious liberty should be understood as “more than freedom of worship,” and instead be seen as the encouragement of robust participation of committed faith in public discourse and civic life. The document characterizes the struggle for religious liberty as “not a Catholic . . . Jewish . . . Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue,” but rather as an “American issue.”
Not all Catholics agree with this analysis, however. Syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, for example, voiced his reservations at a Georgetown University panel in late May. “There are some of us who worry that this could end up looking like a partisan campaign, even if many bishops don’t want that to happen,” he said, adding that he was “very worried that the religious liberty focus could be used to push Catholic social justice teaching to the rear and have a whole new set of issues up front.”
Many Catholic parishes, both nationally and in the Memphis area, are using the Fortnight of Freedom as an opportunity for a deep conversation about what such a “whole new set of issues” might and should be. Despite moments of agreement, the way forward for Catholics — progressive and conservative alike — is not clear.
David Dault is the host of “Things Not Seen: Conversations about Culture and Faith,” heard locally Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. on KWAM News Talk 990-AM. He is a lay theologian and Catholic educator who lives with his family in Memphis.